Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Sermon

Here is a particularly rich and poetic Christmas sermon by St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407):

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding God on earth and man in heaven. He who is above now for our salvation, dwells here below; and we who were lowly are exalted by divine mercy.

Bethlehem today resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in the place of the sun, enfolds within it on every side, the Sun of Justice. Ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. Today He-Who-Is, is born; and He-Who-Is becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man-while not relinquishing the Godhead that is His.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him angels, nor archangels, nor thrones, nor dominions, nor powers, nor principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Yet He has not forsaken His angels, nor left them deprived of His care, nor because of His incarnation has He ceased being God.

And behold kings have come, that they might serve the Leader of the Hosts of Heaven;

Women, that they might adore Him Who was born of a woman so that He might change the pains of childbirth into joy;

Virgins, to the Son of the Virgin...

Infants, that they may adore Him who became a little child, so that out of the mouths of infants He might perfect praise;

Children, to the Child who raised up martyrs through the rage of Herod;

Men, to Him who became man that He might heal the miseries of His servants;

Shepherds, to the Good Shepherd who was laid down His life for His sheep;

Priests, to Him who has become a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek;

Servants, to Him who took upon Himself the form of a servant, that He might bless our stewardship with the reward of freedom;

Fishermen, to the Fisher of humanity;

Publicans, to Him who from among them named a chosen evangelist;

Sinful women, to Him who exposed His feet to the tears of the repentant woman;

And that I may embrace them all together, all sinners have come, that they may look upon the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! Since, therefore, all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice! I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival! But I take my part, not plucking the harp nor with the music of the pipes nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ!

For this is all my hope!
This is my life!
This is my salvation!
This is my pipe, my harp!

And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels and shepherds, sing:
"Glory to God in the Highest! and on earth peace to men of good will!"

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Sacrifice Acceptable to God (Leviticus 1-10)

One of the frustrating things about reading the Bible as a 21st-century American is that the Bible was not written to 21st-century Americans. It doesn’t address our modern scientific concerns with mythology. It doesn’t appease our delicate sensibilities with its brutality. And it doesn’t explain to us what on earth all these sacrifices are for.

I admit, I really am baffled by the concept of animal sacrifice. Something that was natural and obvious to ancient man goes completely over my head. Why is the very heart of worship centered around killing and eating animals? What is the motivation behind it? What did people see it accomplishing for themselves and for their gods?

You would think Leviticus would help explain these things, but it assumes you already know the why, and goes straight into the how. And this it does quite well. Kill the animal at the entrance of the tent; throw the blood against the sides of the alter; cut up the carcass; burn the head, fat, entrails, and legs on the alter for the Lord; bon appetit! If you didn’t catch all that, don’t worry: the instructions will be repeated sixteen times.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for sacrificing to a god:
  1. appeasing the god’s anger against you by offering him a substitute
  2. giving the god a present
  3. inviting the god to dinner
I was taught to see the Old Testament sacrificial system as centered mostly on the first item, but upon careful reading I actually see very little of this. Noah’s sacrifice is in the context of food, not placating God. Abraham indeed offers a lamb instead of Isaac, but the focus is on God’s provision to Abraham and not God’s requirement of some sort of sacrifice. Nowhere is it implied that the Passover lamb actually focuses God’s wrath against the lamb and not the firstborn – rather it is a sign of the covenant the people have with a god already desperately intent on saving them.

So I don’t think sacrifices, at least in the Bible so far, were meant to appease God’s wrath. The very fact that you were in a position to offer a sacrifice meant you were on pretty good terms with him.

The Levitical section on sacrifice ends with an anecdote where Aaron’s sons offer strange fire and get struck dead by the Lord for ignoring his explicit instructions on how he is to be worshiped. This is terribly harsh, and the following scenes where Aaron has to hold back his tears to keep doing priestly work is heart wrenching. But the point is made – the stuff you are doing is serious and important. You may not worship God in any way you feel like – you can’t tailor him to your preferences.

In trying to urge a grieving (and far-from-hungry) Aaron to eat the sacrifice, Moses outlines the heart of their vocation as priests:
[the sin offering] is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord.
It is in the act of eating the offering, while in the presence of God, that they make atonement for the people and bear their guilt. The people outside are also feasting on roasted meat from their peace offerings, and the smell of sizzling fat from the Lord’s portion is rising to the heavens. The Lord is communing with them, receiving their gifts, and forgiving their sins.

All this is made possible by the death of scores of animals. God has provided lamb after lamb, whose lifeblood coats the alter as it did the doorposts at Passover. It is only through their death that life, health, forgiveness, and celebration are brought to the people. Israel lives because other living creatures, created by God’s hands, die.

Though we may consider such rituals barbaric, are we really any less dependent today?

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Obedient to Their Laws

Nearly 2500 years ago, three hundred Spartan soldiers and a handful of allies fought against nearly a million invading Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Seeing such a tiny force against him, king Xerxes had initially asked the Spartans to lay down their arms. In characteristic Spartan hubris, they replied “come and take them.” When told the Persian arrows were so many that they would block out the sun, the Spartans joked that it would be a relief to be able to fight in the shade. They eventually died to the last man, but not before killing 20,000 Persians and holding off the entire invading army for three days.

An epitaph in their honor reads:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
That last line puzzled me. Why, when referring to such unbelievable heroism, do they speak of obeying laws? What does following rules have to do with being a vicious warrior?

I bring this up because I’ve had similar thoughts when reading passages like these in the psalms:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

The rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
I know, of course, that God commands things for a reason and if we love him we’ll obey him. And this need not be a burden to us. But what is this business of meditating on laws all day long? Legal codes are more desirable than gold? Rulebooks are sweeter than honey?

Though the first five books of the Bible are considered “the Law”, Leviticus is the most like a legal document of them. Thus it is also considered by many to be the most boring and tedious books of the Bible. It’s hard to imagine waxing poetic like the psalmist about Leviticus. But wax they do, and if it seems dull and lifeless to us, then there must be something the psalmists see that we are blind to.

So what did the Spartans mean when they claimed to be obedient to their laws by dying in battle against impossible odds? That these virtues – fighting fiercely, defending their homeland, sacrificing their lives for their fellow soldiers, fearing nothing – are the core of what it means to be a Spartan. Laws exist to explicitly state how people in a certain society are to behave. These three hundred men were a model of the Spartans ways, and that is why they lay dead at Thermopylae.

Similarly, the psalmist’s deepest desire is to live up to the calling of Israel – the chosen people of God. He knows his is a chosen race for God’s own possession to be examples for all the nations. He knows every aspect of his life is to be different – his customs, work, religious life, even diet. He embraces his identity as a son of Israel, and devotes all his life to being everything one of God’s chosen should be.

Which is what, exactly? How does that look in the mundane details of life? What laws has God set out for them, and what do they imply about the sort of nation this is to be?

We need look no further than Leviticus.

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Friday, December 15, 2006


Exodus is the story of God beginning the great fulfillment of his promise to Abraham - to make his offspring into a nation in the land where he was only a nomad. It is the story of God's intensely personal relationship with Moses. It is the story of his spectacular defeat of the most powerful Empire in the world. And it is the story of how God ultimately decides to continue to work with this people, tempted as he is to destroy them for their fickle and rebellious hearts.

  1. Out of Egypt I Called My Son (1-4)
  2. God the Playwright (5-11)
  3. The Lord is a Warrior (12-15)
  4. How Dreadful Is This Place (16-19)
  5. The Law of the Lord (20-24)
  6. How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place (25-31)
  7. You Have Hidden Your Face From Us (32-40)
  8. The Best of Men, the Worst of Men

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Best of Men, the Worst of Men

A lot of Exodus brings back memories of the flood. Countless babies are drowned in the river, Moses rides atop safe in his little ark, and the armies of Pharaoh are crushed under the weight of the Red Sea. At this stage of the Bible, water seems symbolic of both chaos and lethal judgment. Indeed, the harshest judgment an artist can make is to prefer the torn shreds of ripped-up canvas to the painting he had such great hopes for.

The first inclination God had was to trash the whole of creation, but Noah made him think twice. After the flood had destroyed nearly everything, the Lord reflects on what has happened and makes some interesting promises:
I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Why is man’s evil a ground for God not to curse the ground? The logic doesn’t seem to follow. My only guess is that God now knows he can’t expect man in his current state to live up to his calling as caretaker of creation – and he’s committing himself to fix man and maintain creation in the meantime.

The second half of Genesis is much more promising. Abraham shows tremendous faith, Jacob is one who will implacably pursue the Lord’s blessings, and Joseph brings reconciliation to brothers at odds while saving a nation from famine. These people are at least on the way to getting back on track.

But how can God scale this up? How do you create an entire nation of Abrahams, Jacobs, and Josephs? This is the problem begun in Exodus, and, frankly, continued in some sense throughout the rest of the Bible.

It’s a frustrating task from the very beginning, as we see in the Golden Calf incident. Here God wants to fall back on his flood plan – keeping Moses safe while purging the rest of the people. But this doesn’t really get anywhere. It only turns the clock back. Even if he created another nation from Moses, God is going to have to deal once again with the fact that “the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.”

In this sense, Israel is a fantastic representative for humanity. It produces amazing leaders and visionaries who can play on God’s level. If God is going to pull this redemptive project off, he’ll need people like this. But Israel also produces masses of pathetic fickle people that embody the depths to which all mankind can fall. If God is going to be successful with this prototype, he’ll have to prove it can handle even the worse cases.

Exodus ends with God once again rolling up his sleeves and putting his hand to the plow. And apparently the giving of the Law is a key part of what he has in store. How do the commandments, case laws, dietary rules, and sacrificial ritual fit relate to the rest of the story? What exactly is God up to? With these questions, we turn to Leviticus.

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